People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Jewish Americans Part 2

About the Jewish Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Jewish-Americans and more.


Numbers: Jewish immigration peaked between 1880 and 1924, when 2,378,000 arrived. The years 1933--1944 saw 127,000 arrive, and another 191,693 arrived between 1944 and 1959 (119,373 from 1947-1951 as displaced persons). The total American Jewish population in 1977 was 5,845,000, or 2.7% of the total U.S. population.

Their Story in America: The Jews came to the New World fleeing religious persecution and seeking the better life, promised by the opening of the new frontier. Unlike most other ethnic groups, Jews are still coming to the U.S. for both reasons. Escape from religious persecution still plays as large a role in Jewish immigration as it did in 1654.

The majority of the early Jewish settlers in what was to become the U.S. were Sephardim, who followed the customs and traditions developed in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Encountering few difficulties as a result of their religion--these cosmopolitan emigres were allowed freedom of religious expression if not full civil rights--they quickly established the institutions which are necessary for a Jewish community: a synagogue, a school, and a cemetery.

The typical Jew at this time either was a small shopkeeper or merchant or was engaged in import and export. One, Haym Solomon, gave invaluable assistance to the colonials' cause in his role as a fund raiser.

German and central European Jewish immigrants of the 1815-1880 immigration wave quickly found themselves engaged in the same sorts of occupations they had known in Europe--petty trade and peddling. Only a few had the means to establish themselves in business quickly; farming was an occupation totally foreign to the Jewish experience; and while there was a need for laborers in America's growing industries, there was little hope for advancement. The typical path of the Jewish peddler was to walk the new communities west of the Allegheny Mountains until he had amassed enough cash to establish a small retail outlet. Many of America's leading retail concerns were founded in this manner, among them Sears, Roebuck and Co.; Macy's; Gimbels; and Levi-Strauss Company. It was during this European immigration that the dominant Jewish trend in the U.S. became that of the Ashkenazic, or German, tradition, as Europeans rapidly outnumbered those following the Sephardic custom.

With the massive immigration from eastern Europe of 1880-1924, Jews flocked to New York City in a stream that rapidly became a deluge, numbering over 100,000 per year between 1904 and 1908.

New immigrants congregated mostly in the Lower East Side of New York--as many as 315,000 in 2 sq. mi.--Where they were employed primarily in the clothing industry. Most worked in sweatshops, which were often owned by other Jews. As a result of the poor working conditions, a strong Jewish trade union and socialist movement rapidly arose--a carry-over from eastern European life. The Lower East Side period is looked upon by many as the richest in Jewish-American life. It was there that the Yiddish theater and press flourished, that political movement of all shades developed, and that the flavor of eastern European Jewish culture began to make its full impact on U.S. culture, in ideas, food, and the infusion of Yiddish terms into the English language. But the living conditions were appalling, and the Lower East Side was basically a place to move out of as quickly as possible.

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